February 27, 2007

Cerita Dream School

On our last vacation, we had a chance to try out a school that turned out to be my dream school. For 3 days a week Don was a guest student of Sekolah Alam (it means Nature School, I don’t think we need to translate a name but just so you can get a sense out of the name). I didn’t think it was going to be anything extraordinary or even close to any dream school. I just thought it was a very unique school.

Mesjid of the dream schoolSekolah Alam is basically a school in nature. There’s no concrete classroom. They do their learning in huts. Plus, they do a lot of their learning in nature, outside their classroom (hut), mingling with the trees, grass, ponds, sand, animals, getting dirty from the grass or dirt or water, running, jumping. No ordinary school. It’s my dream school.

Then I got to know their curriculum and way of teaching the children. It was so close to my homeschooling idea, it’s like a homeschool center where homeschooling parents send their children to learn together.

Why is it my dream school? Because their emphasis is on manners and learning, not grades. So there’s no test, no grades, no ranking. Children are assessed by everyday interaction with the teachers. Because the emphasis is not on grades, special students are also accommodated. There are autistic children there, ADHD, and even one with down syndrome !!

Furthermore, there’s a lot of hands-on and real life experiment. Since the school is like a big garden with grass and trees instead of concrete, it’s like a living laboratory. They learn math, science and everything else from their environment. Children learn in real life condition.

a garden shed in the dream school

Even though I have decided to go to the school before we arrive there, I still want to give Don a chance to choose a school for himself. So we went to a couple of different schools. Well, the others were conventional schools and Don loved the playground and the library. But he refused to go into the classroom.

At Sekolah Alam, however, he fell in love with the school right away. As soon as we step our feet in the schoolyard he asked

“Is this a school, Mom ?” (mind you, it doesn’t look like a school, it’s more like a garden).

“Yes, it’s a school.”

“Wow, I want to go to school here Mom. What are those, Mom ?” (he was pointing to some ropes hanging from tree to tree, and some structures on one of the tree).

“That’s a tree house. As for the ropes, I suppose they’re for some activities they might do, maybe something like a flying fox that you did last year ?”

“I want to do that !” (and he was jumping up and down in excitement).

treehouse in the dream schoolAfter that Don just loved it. He wanted to go to school everyday instead of just 3 days a week. Often he didn’t want to go home. He said “I’m not done. I’m still playing.” Oh that’s another thing, he never said he learn anything from school, he just play. Apparently all children in Sekolah Alam never thought of themselves as learning, they just play (of course this is for the younger children). Another reason why it's my dream school.

They are learning, of course, but they way of learning is just so much fun they don’t realize it. The young children going to Sekolah Alam are just like going to a play date. They play all day. But the teachers work hard to make that a learning opportunity for the children.

And how about the teachers ? You should see their eyes everytime they answer my question of why they like being a teacher there. Their eyes just lit and all of them said “It is just amazing !” Why wouldn’t it be ? It’s a dream school, not just for the children but for the teachers, too.

They have their own curriculum and they call it spider web, or theme based. Let’s say they’re learning about fish this week. So there’s math, language-art, science, and all other subject that they learn that week, all concerning fish. It’s very different to the conventional school and it’s working since whatever they’re learning, it’s real. It’s not just classroom theory.

They have a pond with fish in their school. They can count the fish, or the amount of food they might need to feed the fish. They can learn about different kind of fish there are in the pond. They can learn about fish life cycle. They can learn about what happens to the fish if they sell them. So there’s opportunity to learn math, language-art, natural and social science.

Children in the dream school

So it’s my dream school. It’s the closest thing I can find to my homeschooling ideas. It nurtures children’s love of learning. It accommodates different styles of learning. It even accommodates special need children (they have one special teacher for each special need student, isn’t that wonderful). They don’t have tests just for the sake of grades.

This is another thing I like about it. Teachers evaluate the children from everyday interaction. When it comes the time to do a test the teachers already know what each child is capable of. I saw a lot of teachers going back and forward to different students after a test and I asked them what’s going on.

They said nothing major. Apparently they’re marking the tests and there were some discrepancy. A student had left some questions blank and the teacher knew that the student can answer the question perfectly. The teachers knew that the student still had difficulty writing so the teacher went back to the student and encourage him to write it down.

Amazing, don’t you think ? Talk about nurturing the love of learning. You’re never penalized because you did badly on a test since the teacher already know how good or bad you are. You can concentrate on learning and not worry about passing a test. My dream school, indeed.

The tests that they do are mostly for formality, just so if the parents needed to move somewhere else, the students have school reports with grades on them, instead of smiley faces and writing.

Their reports are usually like that, filled with smiley and writing. It’s an assessment by the teachers. For example, this week they learn about the fish. The teachers would give smiley faces (ranges of smiley, from sad, to a smile, to a laugh) on whether the child still needs a lot of help, or need a little help, or is independent on the topic of fish. Oh I just love it.

Now since it’s Sekolah Alam, or Nature School if we translate it, there’s a lot of outing. I can’t remember how often they do it, but they do their outing either to a beach, a forest, a mountain, a home industry, a printing facility, a port, just about anywhere. And it’s not just an outing for fun, there’s a lot of learning involved.

When they go to a beach or forest or mountain, they learn about the place with its unique plants and animals. They learn about the local people and how they make a living. There is also the hiking, going to water falls, venturing into caves. They never forget to have fun.

Another fun activity that they do every 2 weeks is what they call Outbound. I’m not sure what the English word for it, but it’s basically a form of Physical Education. It’s a lot more challenging and fun than just running around a track and doing push ups or stretching.

Flying fox in dream schoolThe outbound activity would take up their whole day. They would start the day by doing stretching and warming up exercises. Again, it is so much more fun and not like anything I know before. They use songs, of course, and funny exercises to encourage the children to move about. The children love it. They’re always smiling or even laughing while doing it.

Then they would rest a little and get ready for The Outbound activity. I think I’m going to call it Obstacle course, for lack of a proper word. You walk across a rope bridge, glide down a rope, climb over a rope wall, walk across twin ropes, etc. (Oh I do hope you get what I’m trying to say).

It was just FUN !! It looks little terrifying considering how young the children can be but apparently they can do it alright. They love it and it’s perfectly safe. It's just like what I always dream of, my dream school, full of fun activities and challenges.

Flying fox in dream schoolSince Don was in the kindergarten and I was mostly observing the kindergarten and lower grade classes, all that I have written about involve the younger children. I think it’s a little different with the upper grades. I think with older children, you can expect that they know it is important to learn. So there’s not as much play and you can expect the children to already love learning.

There’s still the same format, like theme based curriculum and a lot of outings, hands-on and real life experiments. So it’s still is my dream school, except that the children are older. They realize that when there’s a test, you can’t always depend on the teacher to return to you if you did badly.

spider web in dream school

The upper grades are more academically challenging and I can’t write a lot about it since I don’t think I’d do them justice. But I can say it’s as fun as the lower classes. The one thing that impressed me most was that they have science project that each student has to do to pass to the next grade. It was just brilliant.

The project ranges from very simple (the effect of watching too much TV) to the very complicated (comparing different methods of making coconut virgin oil). But it is the effort of the students (and the teachers who help them) that impressed me the most. It’s just my dream school, I can’t say it enough. It’s academically challenging, yet you have the complete support from teachers and parents you need most to succeed.

It's not perfect, nothing is. But I can say it's my favorite, it's where I want to go if I was still a child. It's my dream school.

More information on Sekolah Alam, www.sekolahalam.org

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